China has been developing really fast over the past 30 years. If you traveled to China 30 years ago or so, you wouldn’t believe that this country would look as it does now. Technology, skyscrapers, fast delivery, online shopping, 5G connection, high-speed trains, innovations, the list goes on…We have interviewed some foreigners who happened to come to China long ago and who witnessed what China was back then. Read on to go back in past and discover what it felt like to be an expat in China at that time.
From: The United States
First time in China: 1961 – Taiwan / 1992 – Mainland China
When and why did you decide to go to China?
I had always had a certain fantasy about Asia and China in particular. I came to Taiwan in 1961 when I was in the military. We could choose different destinations where we would be located to and I chose Taiwan and Okinawa. The first time I came to mainland China was in 1992 or 1993. I came straight to Kunming because I had a friend who lived here at the time. He told me this was a great place to live. When he described it to me, I was immediately sold. A couple of months afterward, I moved here. It’s interesting because Kunming had popped up multiple times throughout my life before I came here.
What was your first impression of this country?
When I arrived in Taiwan, we were treated like we were nobility. I was very young at that time, but even then, I was very wealthy. We had a lot of privileges. At that time in the United States, World War II still cast a shadow on everything. So, it was strange for me that we lived such wealthy lives. That didn’t last long though. When the Vietnam War started it came to a crashing halt.
When I first came to Kunming, it was quite a shock. It wasn’t warm and humid at all. It was quite chilly. It didn’t smell like China either. The smells I was used to were the smells of the South East, places like Guangzhou. For me, Kunming didn’t seem like China. But it was liberating. I was shocked by the freedom over here. The people were also very different from what I had heard from stereotypes.
What was the biggest challenge you had to deal with when you first came here?
It was the language. It was hard for me to remember things and there weren’t many resources. I do sometimes feel a little bit embarrassed, because many young foreigners that are here now speak Chinese really well and I don’t, even after such a long time of being here. Another thing that I found challenging was building friendships with Chinese people. I found that they often didn’t have time. The last thing I struggled with is that China has a strong shame-based culture. People don’t want to lose face. Because of that, it can be hard at times to get a straight answer out of people or really understand the way they feel. I do feel like that is changing with the younger generations.
How have you seen China change? What did you like or dislike about these changes?
China is totally unrecognizable. When I first came to Kunming, there were thousands of bicycles parked everywhere. Everybody traveled by bicycle. I remember that in the neighborhood where I lived, there were two cars parked. Several years later, I counted the cars in my neighborhood again. There were now about 200 cars parked there. This happened in a span of 8 or 9 years. Another thing is that the countryside was right outside of the 2nd ring road. Now this place is full of buildings. The infrastructure of the city has completely changed.
However, the biggest change I have seen was social. The Chinese started to cool towards Westerners. Not in terms of kindliness, I have always perceived the Chinese as very warm and generous people. Their attitudes towards Westerners changed in terms of wealth. People were poor when I first came here. One of my Chinese friends told me that when her family moved to another city in the early ’80s, they had one possession. It was a pot and maybe a change of clothes. The Chinese viewed Westerners as the ones with money. And that has shifted now, the Chinese have become really wealthy themselves.
I also saw a shift in the ambiance in the foreign community. Back in the early 2000s, we were all one big group. It was very social and relaxed. There were no cliques, everybody interacted with each other. There were also a lot of backpackers. It was one of the nicest periods in my life. Now the visa policies are much stricter, which makes it difficult for foreigners to live or travel here. It is not as free as it was before. This changed the ambiance.
How has China changed you?
I feel like I have a more international perspective. Living here has also changed my relationship with my home country. I don’t really feel American and I don’t feel like I fit in when I’m in the United States. But I’m happy about that. I feel like it made my life much richer than it otherwise would have been.
How do you look back on your time in China?
You know the movies and books where the old man says: “I wouldn’t change a thing.” But I feel like I would change everything. Not only because of regrets but there are so many things I could’ve done better. But I’m glad I’m here. I look back on it in a positive way.
What does your future look like? Do you see yourself staying here or are there other things on the horizon?
I want to stay here in China. However, it all depends on if I can stay here. If you’re not a teacher here, it’s hard to get a visa. If I do have to leave China, I would probably go to the Philippines or Vietnam.
By Eline Schaap